Writers Forum Looks Golden
The renowned visiting author series celebrates 50 years, with a retrospective event set for February 15.
Derek Nikitas ’98 remembers the thrill of visiting authors coming into his Writer’s Craft class to talk.
“I felt like I was in the presence of literary royalty when Mary Karr and Paul Muldoon appeared,” Nikitas said.
Literary royalty and Brockport. A bold statement on the surface, but when one begins to dig, the sentiment makes sense. Authors visiting The College at Brockport to present at the Writers Forum have collectively received 40 Pulitzer Prizes, 26 National Book Awards, and five Nobel Prizes for Literature.
Diane Ackerman. Edward Albee. Sherman Alexie. Yehuda Amichai. John Ashbery. Isaac Asimov. Margaret Atwood. Charles Baxter. John Berryman. Robert Bly.
2016-17 marks a special season for the Writers Forum. On September 28, Margaret Atwood kicked off the 50th anniversary of the series. The official celebration takes place February 15 and brings back to campus long-time College professors and poets William Heyen and Stan Sanvel Rubin, who were also both former directors of the series. Heyen remembers the great impact the Writers Forum had on him as he was beginning his teaching career.
“The influence was incalculable, this novice rubbing shoulders with great writers,” Heyen said. “Here I was, coming from Ohio University, learning to teach, aspiring to write, and I was around these thunderous personalities. It was astounding.”
Eavan Boland. Gwendolyn Brooks. Lucille Clifton. Robert Creeley. Rita Dove. Denise Duhamel. Cornelius Eady. Carolyn Forché. Allen Ginsberg. Nadine Gordimer.
Gregory Fitz Gerald, who was recruited to the College by Department of English Chair Phil Gerber to design a creative writing program, initiated the Writers Forum in 1967. Fitz Gerald and A. Poulin, Jr., another long-time faculty member who later founded publisher BOA Editions Ltd., were well connected with the national poetry scene. Poulin also edited several editions of the Contemporary Poetry Anthology.
The connections and work of Fitz Gerald and Poulin paid dividends, as the Writers Forum created a name for the College. “Brockport was right at the center of defining who the important American poets were,” Heyen said.
Professor Anne Panning came to Brockport in 1997 to teach English and creative writing and has been co-director of the Writers Forum since 2004, the first 12 of those years partnering with Ralph Black, and the current year with James Whorton. She understands the historical significance of the program.
“We are the oldest continually running reading series in the country,” Panning said. “We’re also one of the only series that does a videotaped one-hour interview with every visiting writer. Scholars, professors, and writers contact us from all over the world to inquire about our videotaped author archives. We are a well-known, very prestigious series.”
The Writers Forum began videotaping author interviews in 1968 and has more than 300 readings, interviews, and discussions on file. A fund* has been created to digitize as many of these interviews as possible in order to preserve them and make them widely available.
Seamus Heaney. Richard Hugo. Mary Karr. Galway Kinnell. Carolyn Kizer. Yusef Komunyakaa. Li-Young Lee. Denise Levertov. Archibald MacLeish. Howard Nemerov.
Before the public reading, each author meets with the students in the Writer’s Craft class. The students are assigned to read one of the author’s books, but the question-and-answer session often covers much more.
“Students have connected with visiting writers in terms of going to graduate school, getting published, talking one-on-one with them about the work and career of being a writer,” Panning said. “Many students end up following writers on Facebook and Twitter, which often leads to further connections about writing contests, conferences, and opportunities. Also, meeting writers in an intimate classroom setting allows students a unique opportunity to ask questions about what the working life of a writer is really like, and helps students find role models for their own goals.”
Nikitas agrees with that concept.
“I discovered the Writers Forum at a pivotal moment as a junior English major in Judith Kitchen’s spring 1996 Writer’s Craft class,” he said. “The vitality of those initial experiences has always stuck with me.”
Nikitas received his undergraduate degree in English from Brockport before getting an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He is the author of three novels (Pyres, The Long Division, Extra Life) and currently teaches English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. In a moment he found satisfying, Nikitas came back to Brockport in March 2008 as a visiting author.
“One of my sustaining goals was to reach a point where I could be invited back to the Writers Forum as a visiting writer myself, giving back to students what was given to me,” Nikitas said. “A decade later, it happened, and nothing in my career has quite been able to match the thrill of returning.”
Joyce Carol Oates. Tim O’Brien. Mary Oliver. Susan Orlean. Grace Paley. Robert Pinsky.
Adrienne Rich. Anne Sexton. W.D. Snodgrass. Gary Snyder. William Stafford.
Over the years, the Writers Forum has created special events, one each during the fall and spring semesters. The Writer’s Voice (begun in 2004) in the fall generally alternates between fiction writers and poets, while the Art of Fact award (begun in 2000) in the spring is given to a nonfiction author. M&T Bank has been a generous sponsor of these events.
“Seeing M&T Bank executive Dan Burns interact with our Writer’s Voice guest Pam Houston was wonderful,” Panning said. “They talked mortgage rates, skiing, winter weather, and the importance of taking chances. It was truly a case of seemingly opposite people connecting in the best of ways and finding common ground with literature.”
Over 50 years, more than a few interesting memories have been formed.
“Other writers may have been more meaningful, such as Archibald MacLeish, Allen Ginsberg, or Galway Kinnell, and other giants,” Heyen said, “but the most memorable was John Berryman. He showed up a day late and drunk, and we found him wandering around.”
Panning has her own favorite memory.
“When Russell Banks was our Writer’s Voice guest in 2013, there was a terrible thunderstorm and the electricity went out at the temple (B’rith Kodesh) in Rochester,” Panning said. “Instead of throwing in the towel, Banks insisted on going ahead with the Q&A with students by the light of their cell phone flashlights.”
So what does it mean to Panning for the Writers Forum to remain a vital part of the College’s cultural DNA?
“It means that despite competition from television, movies, social media, people still come to hear what we have to offer because we have been so consistently high quality in who we bring in to the program,” Panning said. “We bring in writers at all stages of their careers. Many come in early or mid career, who then later become award-winning, famous writers. It means we have the support from an institution and community that value the arts and stand behind us.”
Cheryl Strayed. Natasha Trethewey. Calvin Trillin. Richard Wilbur. C.K. Williams.
When Heyen thinks of the Writers Forum, he thinks of inclusion and community.
“I interviewed Allen Ginsberg the morning after his reading,” he said. “After the interview, I was sitting alone in the student union. After a while, I saw Ginsberg and some of his friends that came to Brockport with him sitting at a nearby table. I didn’t want to intrude, and then Ginsberg stood up and yelled, ‘Hey, Bill. Come on over.’ It was this great Whitmanian inclusion—that’s the Writers Forum.”
|*You can help digitize the interview collection by making a donation directed to the Writers Forum Digitization project (fund # 567.01), or sending a check made payable to the Brockport Foundation, with the fund number noted. We greatly appreciate your support in preserving this remarkable history.|